Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn spread the wealth Thursday with an election-year budget that should please every incumbent officeholder at City Hall. After years of relying on cash reserves to make ends meet, Buckhorn avoided that and presented a balanced budget that makes important investments in neighborhoods and aging public works. It is a reasonable plan for 2015 that builds on Buckhorn's first term and sets the stage for his March re-election campaign.
The biggest surprise in the budget plan released Thursday to the City Council was that for the first time since becoming mayor in 2011, Buckhorn will not tap city reserves. He has spent about $7 million per year from reserves since taking office, driving the balance down to $103 million, far below the peak of about $150 million under his predecessor, Pam Iorio.
The recovering economy enables Buckhorn to pay the city's bills next year and return $1.3 million to reserves, which keeps the city's balance sheet at a healthy level for lenders on Wall Street. He is keeping the property tax rate the same, although the fee for garbage collection would slightly increase. Yet with building permits increasing and the city's property values rising for a second straight year, the mayor was able to cover the second year of a negotiated pay raise for employees, higher costs for health care, and hiring new police officers to replace those who are retiring. This is a get-going budget after years of holding back, and it reflects both the mayor's confidence in the region and his intent to deliver on major projects that started on his watch.
The bulk of the new spending is on what it should be — roads, sewers, flood control and other capital investments that have been backlogged for years. The canal work in South Tampa, safety improvements to Busch Boulevard and a one-time shot of $4 million for street resurfacing — a 50 percent annual jump — are bread-and-butter improvements that enhance the city's quality of life. Buckhorn also included $300,000 to design a fix for Cuscaden Pool in Ybor City, setting the stage to reopen that historic facility in 2016. There was competition for the Cuscaden money, but he did the right thing.
With projects all across town, the budget has something for everybody, which should make council members happy in the run-up to March city elections. It also furthers Buckhorn's strategy of targeting investments to set the table for private development. Improving roads, expanding the reliability of water service and flood control, upgrading parks and keeping the police and fire departments well-equipped are essential to attracting new residents and businesses.
A balanced budget that returns money to the rainy day fund and spends a record $19 million on neighborhood projects is good politics in an election year. But it also shows the bullish side of a mayor who is looking to appear as a confident partner to attract private investment.
With this budget, Buckhorn is ending his first term with an eye toward a second — and offering a hint of the urgency he will show in making these investments pay off.